Girls as young as six years are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, a new study of elementary school-age children in the US has found.
It has been found in the past that women and teens think of themselves in sexually objectified terms, but the new study published in the journal 'Sex Roles' is the first to identify self-sexualisation in young girls.
In the study, psychologists at Knox College in Galesburg, Illionis, used paper dolls to assess self-sexualisation in six- to nine-year-old girls. Sixty girls were shown two dolls, one dressed in tight and revealing "sexy" clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit.
Using a different set of dolls for each question, the team then asked each girl to choose the doll that: looked like herself, looked how she wanted to look, was the popular girl in school, she wanted to play with.
Across-the-board, girls chose the "sexy" doll most often.
The results were significant in two categories: About 68 per cent of the girls said the doll looked how she wanted to look, and 72 per cent said she was more popular than the non-sexy doll, LiveScience reported.
"It's very possible that girls wanted to look like the sexy doll because they believe sexiness leads to popularity, which comes with many social advantages," said lead researcher Christy Starr, who was surprised at how many 6- to 7-year-old girls chose the sexualised doll as their ideal self.
Other studies have found that sexiness boosts popularity among girls but not boys. "Although the desire to be popular is not uniquely female, the pressure to be sexy in order to be popular is," she pointed out.
Starr and her team also looked at factors that influenced the girls' responses. Most of the girls were recruited from two public schools, but a smaller subset was recruited from a local dance studio. The girls in this latter group actually chose the non-sexualised doll more often for each of the four questions than did the public-school group.
Being involved in dance and other sports has been linked to greater body appreciation and higher body image in teen girls and women, Starr said.
"It's possible that for young girls, dance involvement increased body esteem and created awareness that their bodies can be used for purposes besides looking sexy for others, and thus decreased self-sexualisation."
According to the researchers, media consumption alone did not influence girls to prefer the sexy doll. But girls who watched a lot of TV and movies and who had moms who reported self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about their clothes and appearance many times a day, were more likely to say the sexy doll was popular.
The authors suggest that the media or moms who sexualise women may predispose girls toward objectifying themselves; then, the other factor (mom or media) reinforces the messages, amplifying the effect.
On the other hand, mothers who reported often using TV and movies as teaching moments about bad behaviours and unrealistic scenarios were much less likely to have daughters who said they looked like the sexy doll, the team found.
The power of maternal instruction during media viewing may explain why every additional hour of TV- or movie-watching actually decreased the odds by seven per cent that a girl would choose the sexy doll as popular, Starr said.
However, girls who didn't consume a lot of media but who had religious mothers were much more likely to say they wanted to look like the sexy doll.
"This pattern of results may reflect a case of 'forbidden fruit' or reactance, whereby young girls who are overprotected from the perceived ills of media by highly religious parents.. begin to idealise the forbidden due to their underexposure," the authors wrote.